Three Friends Start Out Together

Miss Ward had done the best she could with Ansel Head. By the time he was nine, her forbearance was exhausted; he would have to move on to another school. Four years was all she could endure any one boy. In her fifty years of teaching, she had pumped their free floating neurons full with as much information as she could present in the hopes that one day synopses would bond them together, commence firing, and reveal an educated person. But in the end there was only so much one body could do even though she was the best whoever tried.

Ansel Head's Boyhood Home

So off Head went to the Birmingham University School where, segregated from girls, he could join other boys in a stress free environment while waiting for circuits to form in his brain. B-U-S, as the school was called, had been around for many years; Head’s uncle had attended it before the War and his brother had finished the eighth grade before transferring to McCallie in Chattanooga. As chairman of its board, Head’s father had raised the money to construct a new school building on the boarder of the Tiny Kingdom next to a city park only two blocks from where Head lived.

The fifth grade was the starting point at BUS; all entering students were new to the place and to each other. That should have produced anxiety, but to young boys with undeveloped minds, angst was unknowable. Displaying identical vacuous countenances, the boys met each other and their male keepers for the first time on a hot September day.

To outward appearances, the ten or twelve boys were identical – white, of Anglo-Saxon stock, born into Birmingham aristocracy, and generally dressed in kaki pants, collared shirts, and Buster Brown oxford shoes. Befitting their station, the sons from the regal Big Mule families had a more avant-garde dress code– blue jeans and black, high top tennis shoes. The tradition bound mothers of the others held fast to their position that blue jeans were inappropriate attire for the peerage class.

If chaos breeds life, then one would expect that in a room full of ten year old boys, things would be lively; but the teachers were bent on discipline believing that order would produce habit and habit would produce learning. Miss Ward had exacted calm with only a look from behind wire rimmed glasses and an occasional clap of small, thin hands. These new guards lacked her experience and composure. Being nothing more than grown boys themselves, they soon became frustrated and resorted to violence. Their weapon, a 36 inch wooden ruler across the back side, would return order. But enforced order failed to produce meaningful habits and the habits that were formed failed to produce learning. The whole experiment was going nowhere.

In the first place, the boys were not greedy for work. Sloth was the preferred state and concentration was hard. Their minds weren’t elsewhere, they were nowhere. Diagramming sentences, long division, and French phrases lacked practical purpose. Reading aloud drivel from Readers’ Digest retarded reading. Packing trivia into free floating neurons was the order of the day; absorbing it like a sponge was the boys’ job and like a sponge the moisture was soon evaporating into the air. Undone homework and frequent tests only confirmed the futility of the effort. But since no one had anything else better to do, the teachers and boys kept coming back everyday for more.

Head soon found himself befriending two boys in particular. They were unalike except that they both liked Head even if they didn’t appreciate each other. The Achiever, Henry, was studious, making the highest marks in the class, indeed in the school; he was athletic – the running back in football, point guard in basketball, and slugger in baseball. The Misfit, Wilbur, was less committed to scholarship and sports; he liked cars and guns. During recess, he hid behind the gym smoking.

Henry and Wilbur were Head’s introductions into the two new worlds. He liked both , liked being part of both, and saw educational opportunities in either. Unable to make up his undeveloped mind, Head excelled in neither becoming only a bit player in both, drifting aimlessly back and forth between them as the wind might blow. He achieved but never worked hard enough to become a top achiever; he misbehaved but never found the courage to become a committed misfit. He was wasting valuable time and enjoying it immensely.

But things were not really what they seemed. Any differences Head perceived between his limited acquaintances were insignificant. The boys were growing up isolated in the elite section of a Southern town and segregated in an exclusive private school where aristocrat parents sent their boys for the finest education available anywhere. Theirs was a tiny, closed, and homogenous society where ever boy knew every other boy in less than a day and whose mothers had been friends since birth. Nothing about it was representative of any other place outside of aristocratic enclaves in other Southern towns. That’s the way people living in it wanted it, kept it, and insisted that their children be educated in it.

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